July 22, 2024

The Supreme Court on Friday questioned the future of climate and environmental regulation in the United States, striking down a decades-old legal precedent that gave federal agencies room to interpret laws according to their expertise and scientific evidence. The impact of the decision to scrap the so-called Chevron deference will take years to become clear, but it could allow far more legal challenges to regulations by agencies like the EPA and the Department of the Interior that play a major role in the climate . fight.

Federal courts have long deferred to federal agencies to interpret laws that are unclear and need further clarification. In 1984, a short-handed Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision that federal agencies had the final say on ambiguous policies, allowing those agencies broad authority to make decisions without fear of judicial overruling.

In the Supreme Court filings, the Biden administration said that lifting the Chevron deference would be a “convulsive shock to the justice system.”

Environmental organizations also condemned the decision.

“Today’s ruling sidesteps the role of agency expertise and shifts power instead to judges who lack the expertise of agency staff, who live and breathe the science, financial principles and security issues in which federal agencies specialize,” said Kym Meyer, the litigation. director of the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement.

Vickie Patton, general counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the decision “undermining essential protections for the American people at the behest of powerful polluters.”

Writing for a 6-3 majority, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that “courts must exercise their independent judgment in deciding whether an agency has acted within its statutory authority.” He called the Chevron decision a “fundamental disruption of our separation of powers,” one that “improperly strips courts of judicial power while simultaneously increasing the power of executive agencies.”

The current conservative Supreme Court no longer relies heavily on Chevron to decide major cases involving the executive branch; Roberts argued during the oral arguments for the Runner Bright Enterprises against Raimondo case, also on the docket this session, that the court went “14 or 16” years since issuing a decision citing the Chevron precedent. Instead, in several recent decisions, the court has laid out its own standard for evaluating regulations. This standard, which the court’s conservative justices call the “big question doctrine,” prohibits agencies from making rules on issues of “economic and political magnitude” without clear directives from Congress. The court has never spelled out what constitutes an issue of such magnitude, but it cited the “big questions” test in a landmark 2022 case that limited the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

However, lower courts still invoke the Chevron deference in many cases, and federal agencies win most of them: An analysis of more than 1,500 circuit court decisions between 2003 and 2013 found that courts applied Chevron in 77 percent of regulatory disputes, and that agencies won far more cases than cases where courts did not use Chevron. The Department of the Interior, which deals with many issues related to climate change, oil leasing, endangered species and indigenous affairs, was one of the agencies that relied most heavily on Chevron.

The Biden administration and numerous legal scholars urged the court to keep the precedent in place, arguing that overturning it would create regulatory chaos as hundreds of plaintiffs sued to challenge previous rules. In his decision, Roberts dismissed the idea that the court’s move to throw out Chevron would trigger a flood of lawsuits against previous regulations, saying the decision should not call into question the numerous previous cases that relied on the precedent.

“The holding that specific agency actions are legal—including the Clean Air Act control of Chevron itself—is still subject to statutory stare decisis despite our change in interpretive methodology,” he wrote, citing a legal principle that states judges should leave most prior decisions intact.

In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan expressed skepticism about that claim, saying she found the majority too “sanguine” about the impact of the Chevron toss, arguing that the precedent helped keep “air and water clean, food and keep drugs safe and financial markets honest.” She accused the conservative bloc of trying to turn the Supreme Court “into the country’s administrative czar.”

“What is at stake [in the decision] is whether courts are going to defer to agencies interpreting statutes,” says Michael Burger, the director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, “or whether courts are going to stop doing it and do it themselves with more regularity take. to interpret the statutes, even when they are ambiguous, which means they can be in a position to make more policy choices.”

The main issue at hand this year is Walker Bright, concerns a National Marine Fisheries Service regulation that requires herring fishermen to pay for monitors on their boats. The underlying law in question allows for monitors to ride on boats and make sure fishermen aren’t overfishing, but it doesn’t say whether the government can require fishing boat companies to pay for it. A commercial fishing company represented by lawyers who have ties to conservative energy billionaire Charles Koch’s political organization suing to overturn the monitor rule — and also asking the court to throw out the Chevron entirely standard.

The original Chevron decision upheld an effort to weaken environmental regulations, rather than strengthen them. The Environmental Protection Agency under Ronald Reagan sought to relax the standard for calculating air pollution emissions from industrial facilities, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC, sued to argue that the EPA lacked the authority to reinterpret the Clean Air Act. NRDC won at first, but Chevron appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which sided with Reagan’s EPA.

But over the past decade, many conservatives have come to believe that precedent allows the executive branch to overreach its authority, and overturning it has become a rallying cry for many right-wing activists and legal scholars.

“There is a feeling that Chevron favors regulation,” Burger said. “And if you take away deference and you give power to courts, then the increasing number of conservative judges in the federal court system have more authority, and that will have the effect of chilling agencies.”

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